Chloe Zhao recently became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director and now has a shot to repeat that at the Oscars with her awards-season darling Nomadland garnering six nominations today for Best Picture, Director, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Actress. Still, despite the accolades, questions remain: Will Nomadland ever see a release in China, where Zhao was born? And what does a recent backlash against the filmmaker there mean for Disney/Marvel’s The Eternals, which Zhao directed and which begins rollout in November?
Zhao, who was born in Beijing and has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, made headlines in her homeland when Nomadland took the Golden Lion at Venice in September and more recently was hailed for her Globe wins this month. But then the tide quickly turned, owing to comments she allegedly had made about China that were unearthed in the wake of the Globes ceremony.
In a 2013 interview with Filmmaker, Zhao referred to China as “a place where there are lies everywhere.” Filmmaker has removed the comment from its story, though it’s still available in archive form. Another interview, from December 2020 with Australia’s News.com.au, supposedly saw her claim she was “now” an American. The publication since has issued a correction, saying that was a typo and that Zhao actually said she is ultimately “not” an American.
The quotes nevertheless made their way to Chinese social media and into state-backed publications following the Globes. The Chinese website of Germany’s Deutsche Welle then ran a headline that read, “From the Pride of China to Disgracing China in a Few Short Days.” USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen tells Deadline this “demonstrates how precarious it is when marketing to China, as with Monster Hunter and that earlier fiasco over a lame joke.”
There has yet been no discernible reaction from the Chinese press regarding today’s Oscar nominations, but Rosen has told us that that there was support for Zhao on Chinese social media after the Globes, in addition to upset. “Some have noted that Nomadland is actually critical of a declining U.S. and the evils of a capitalist system, or that Chinese ultra-sensitivities will help ensure that Hollywood will be much less likely to hire Chinese directors for any major films,” explained Rosen. China censored discussions on Nomadland or Zhao in early March; “It’s hard to search for those terms while the [Communist] Party sees where all this is going and decides whether to go ahead with the April release. A bigger issue of course is Eternals, which needs the Chinese market and where Zhao will have to be active in promoting it,” he opined.
Nomadland’s future for the moment is uncertain. Deadline hears that no formal decision has been made by the Chinese authorities and this is a fluid process with the situation being carefully managed on both sides. Searchlight Pictures, which produced Nomadland, did not respond to a request for comment.
One school of thought says that Zhao will need to make a statement regarding her years-old comments, perhaps trying to walk them back or explain, in order for the brouhaha to die down. While Nomadland wouldn’t be expected to make huge bank in China, Oscar movies of recent years have done solid business, and the market remains important. Such a move potentially also would help smooth the path to Eternals.
Rosen notes: “There is a basic contradiction between wanting to claim credit for someone born in Beijing who has succeeded in the West in a creative field and wanting to control the message about how great and successful China is as well. When these messages collide, a decision has to be made as to which of the two competing elements has won out. This is being discussed by the authorities, and of course they’re waiting to see how Zhao responds. There is no doubt a lot of pressure on her to clarify those comments, so she’ll have to come up with something that placates China without being seen to kowtow to China, since that could damage her image in the U.S. … I don’t think it’s that difficult for her to come up with something quite nuanced that explains that she is obviously still Chinese and reveres Chinese culture, etc., that she is still trying to understand the U.S. The comment about lying will be a bit more difficult.”
Interestingly, in a March 8 editorial, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Communist mouthpiece The Global Times wrote: “I don’t think her movie should be removed from the film market. As China remains open, the country should be able to tolerate divergences. Zhao said something believed to be ‘an insult to China’ in 2013, but she is not one of those dissidents who turn their values into political stances and exploit it. As Zhao has become famous, more of her past will be dug up. Facing the fermentation of a mix of information, Chinese audiences will come to their own judgment of how to view Zhao and her films. This controversy will eventually end in a commercially marketed manner.”
Hu continued: “I think Chinese people should be given more of such opportunities to deal with controversies of this kind on their own. … Hence, our society will grow more dynamic and become more resilient. People will also understand more profoundly that many things are not just about being black or white. There is a large-scale intermediate zone regarding quarrels of public opinions.” Hu added, “I believe [Zhao’s] experiences made her a self-contradictory figure. During the period when she shot to fame in the U.S., China became the world’s largest movie market. These two events are expected to generate impacts on her future speech and values…. Fury and change in attitudes are normal. You reap what you sow, and what happens now is the cost she needs to bear.”
Chris Fenton, author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, The NBA & American Business, who is also a trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute as well as a former Hollywood executive with experience in China, believes Zhao’s controversial comments are part of a larger issue. “I would say that’s a symptom — what she said — that’s not the cold. The cold is this is a woman who found success in the U.S. and did not go back to China. … We can talk about the symptoms of quotes she said in 2013, and I’m sure they’re going to keep looking for it, but the cold is why she left and why won’t she come back. That to me is the problem that Marvel and Disney will most likely face because it’s unfixable unless she addresses the cold and not the symptom.”
Rosen contends: “The difficulty in China is that the so-called ‘Little Pink’ nationalists often dominate online social media, so it tends to be a very biased sample with these views. I would argue that the ‘silent majority’ would fully understand why a creative artist would choose not to live in China. It’s not just people being born in China and choosing to live outside.”
Speaking to Deadline ahead of today’s nominations, Rosen said he thinks the impact of the Oscar recognition on Zhao and her films’ future, “will simply reinforce what I expect will be the Chinese decision to approve [Nomadland] for release, either as scheduled on April 23, or some other date. If she gets multiple nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, as expected, it may be released not only in art house cinemas but more broadly. … China has tried so desperately to show that it can nurture creative talent under its authoritarian system and that its artists can succeed outside China, as well as to be a global player in the film industry. I think they definitely want to release the film, and they’re of course expecting Chloe Zhao Ting to meet them at least part of the way by clarifying her reported remarks. She can’t avoid commenting if she continues to do interviews with the media. She and her representatives can craft something that should be enough to make this a win-win situation for her, for China, and for the forthcoming Marvel entry.”
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